I had the opportunity to interview Tadashi Yabe of United Future Organization (UFO), but when I got asked to write this article, initially I felt that I wasn’t the most qualified person to do it. Tadashi Yabe started DJing professionally in the ’80s, and when U.F.O. appeared on the Tokyo scene in the ’90s, I only went a few times to Aoyama Blue where they were DJing at, and I never got the chance to hang out with him back then. But I do remember the articles he wrote for magazines, and I always checked out the records they released.
I really got to know Yabe at the end of the ’90s, when I interviewed him to write the press release for UFO’s fourth album Bon Voyage. From that interview, I started spending more time with him, and I remember that first time I interviewed him even today.
Though they can’t play instruments or read sheet music, the three members of UFO (Tadashi Yabe, Raphael Sebbag, and Toshio Matsuura) came from a background of being heavy music listeners, and technology is what allowed them to make music. UFO’s music was often described as acid jazz and club jazz, and the reason why they used the term “jazz” was to bridge the generational gap between the world of straightforward jazz and dance music. From this conversation with him, I came to know his deep sense of respect as well as his bittersweet feelings towards jazz.
Bon Voyage was released when acid jazz/club jazz as well as the ’90s were coming to an end, which is what made it even more exquisite. The theme of the album was “journeys,” but it wasn’t about actually going to foreign countries. The record expressed the small joys we experience in everyday life when we meet someone unexpected or discovery something new. It shined the light on seemingly small but hugely impactful events in our daily lives. Back when I interviewed him the first time, he said that Tokyo in the late ’90s was getting boring, and he was feeling lonely. UFO started traveling the world in the ’90s, and when they came back to Tokyo, they were looking for something exciting, which is probably what made him feel that way.
It has been 15 years since I interviewed him for the first time, and Yabe is still extremely active as a DJ in Tokyo. I’ve had many opportunities to see him perform (and on some occasions I have DJ’ed with him). A lot of time has passed since I first interviewed him, but it felt like the perfect timing to have another long interview with him again, which is which is what led to this article.
Maybe I should start off by asking you what kind of music you were listening to before you started DJing?
All I was doing in junior high and high school was baseball. But I went to a strict school where students had to be good at both sports and studies, so I was wearing my school uniform with a stiff collar and hat everyday. At the same time, I loved listening to records from when I was a child. I remember buying the triple disc Wings album just because the cover looked cool. But I never told the other guys on the baseball team about my musical preferences. The other kids on the baseball team were regular kids that would have Seiko Matsuda [translator’s note: Japanese pop star of the ’80s] posters on their wall. When baseball practice would get cancelled because of heavy rain, I would take several trains to go to the Teito Musen record shop in Akihabara. It was a six story building full of records.
I remember buying Beatles records at that store.
Actually Akihabara had a lot of record stores before Shibuya. I was always so excited to go to Akihabara, and I would go there in my school uniform and hat and buy all kinds of records. After that I gave up on baseball, and started a part time job washing dishes in Aoyama while going to university. One of my co-workers washing dishes was Hiroshi Ozawa who is a famous stylist now. I became good friends with him, and one day he told me, “In Nishiazabu there is this cool nightclub but it’s not a disco. They have different DJs each night playing different kinds of music. 20 of the nights out of the month are already booked, but they have some days open. You seem to know a lot about music, so why don’t you DJ there?” That’s what got me into DJing. Gaz Mayall used to do a club event called Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues, so I was inspired to name my club night Yabe’s Rockin’ Jazz Night.
What year was that?
It was around ’85 or ’86. I was around 20 years old.
So you had no experience DJing in discos, and you suddenly started DJing in a club?
Yes. So I went from washing dishes to spinning records. I was also interested in fashion shows back then. Satoshi Tomihisa was the founder of Tommy’s House in Kasumicho, and he was also a DJ for fashion brands, so I became his assistant and carried his records. Tommy [Satoshi Tomihisa[ started a club close to the Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku called Daisan Souko. It was open only on Fridays and Saturdays, but people like Ryuichi Sakamoto would always hang out there, and it was a great club. I started DJing there also. In the early hours I would DJ, and then later on while Rankin’ Taxi, Raphael (Sebbag), or Moichi Kuwahara would be DJing, I would wear a grey uniform and make drinks at the bar.
At that time, I went from being Tommy’s assistant to Moichi’s assistant. I had no idea what I was in for. That’s when Moichi started up Club King, and the company was producing late night TV shows, radio shows, and clubs, so it was an exciting time. I was chosen to be an assistant on all those projects. Moichi said that he always wanted to write “music selector” on his passport as his occupation, but that job wasn’t recognized in society yet, so he founded the Japan Music Selector Association to give more recognition to selectors. I was in charge of that, so I had to choose about 200 DJs, critics, and music selectors to be part of the association. I had the job of bringing in the money at Moichi’s company, and we would have meetings every Monday, so I had to choose what bands would perform, find sponsors, book venues, and project sales. I was doing all of that at the age of 21 and 22. We built a club in Nishiazabu called Bohemia that Takeo Kikuchi produced, and we would book DJs from London there regularly. The sound engineer at that club was Satoshi Tomiie, but he was still a student at Waseda back then.
How did you make your connections with the people in London?
We used to have a 30 minute late night TV show on Television Asahi called Club King, and we had a ten minute segment on the show that featured DJs from London. We would have people like Coldcut and whoever was at the forefront of the club scene in London, and my connections started from there. I left Moichi’s company at the age of 25 to start my own company called United Future One Nation. Six months later UFO released their first single “I Love My Baby (My Baby Loves Jazz).” So when we released this first single, I already knew all the international DJs I had to send it to. I was enjoying working behind the scenes. I was also a supporter of Major Force, and because of Moichi, I had a lot of opportunities and made lots of connections in New York and Paris.
Were there any difficulties going from being a DJ to an actual producer?
I already felt at that time that anyone could make music. I mean look at me – I was a person who couldn’t play any instruments, and I ended up making music. I remember reading a book by Jorge Luis Borges which said “in Latin the word for ‘find’ and ‘create’ is the same.” I was always good at selecting things since I was a child. But I always thought that I wasn’t good at creating things. But after reading that book, I started to think that maybe I could make music too. If I started making music, I had a feeling that I would be good at it.
How did you learn the basic production skills to make music?
We were leading a 30 piece string ensemble, but the three of us had no knowledge of music theory.
All three of us had no music production skills. But we’re the last generation of producers who know about tape editing. It’s not exactly a remix, but we can cut tape with razors and create edits. I knew that producers in London were making music by cutting tape, though they couldn’t play instruments. We all had a lot of knowledge about music, so we thought that we could make good music. When UFO makes music together, one person will first tell the other members about the ideas that they have. I remember reading a book by a female Beat Generation writer, and she said that two people are still considered an individual, while three is a crowd. So there’s a big difference when two people make something together, as opposed to three. It can be a difficult process, but when three people come together to create something, it’s like having 30,000 people working together.
It all started because someone told me “you guys should make music,” and we all thought it was a good idea. We knew how to DJ, so we started searching for a programmer who could implement our ideas. We started working with Ayumu Kohinata, but it must have been a difficult process for him. There were three big guys with two turntables each standing behind him, constantly searching for samples at the studio.
So you guys had six turntables in the studio?
Yeah. So we would say “let’s first start with the beat,” and after the beat was finished, we would talk about the tempo, and search for more samples. We would play records on the turntable, and if the sample fit the beat, we would record it. While we were searching for drum sounds, Raphael would find percussion sounds, so we learned a lot from this process. That’s been our process the whole time. When we were offered a chance to make the theme song for Mission Impossible, we got a big budget and went to Abbey Road Studios in London. We were leading a 30 piece string ensemble, but the three of us had no knowledge of music theory. We weren’t trying to just be extravagant by using strings, but we were trying to make the music we wanted to. We’re from the hip hop generation, so we start from spontaneous ideas, and even though it might seem like there is no concept, there is a concept. We would have fun with that. If someone like me can make music, anyone can make music. So I think we’re all lucky in that sense.
Your major label debut album United Future Organization sold a lot of copies in Japan right?
In Japan alone we sold over 100,000 copies. But I never thought we would sell so many records, and I didn’t know the significance of that. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I thought that there was even more we could do back then. With record contracts, all the labels in Japan are using the same template that Sony made many years ago. I also found out that Avex is using the same attorney, so that’s what the music industry in Japan is like. Japan thinks that they’ve accomplished in 20 years what Europe accomplished in 200 years, but you can’t underestimate time.
UFO was always doing what we wanted, and people would criticize us that we were imitating Western artists, but ultimately our music was very Japanese. I’m the type of person that might try to imitate somebody, but I’ll end up making something completely different. I’ll say “let’s make a song like this,” but it will sound like a completely different song. Though I didn’t study music formally, I can still make interesting music. Since we don’t know the rules, it’s easier for us to come up with absurd ideas. There were bands that tried to cover UFO’s songs, but the bands would often say that it was impossible to play our music.
Is that because your music doesn’t follow the rules of music theory?
Absolutely. It might be nonsense to even try to have musicians cover our music. I’m not saying that our music is superior, but I’m saying that our approach and methods of making music are completely different from musicians. I really respect Nobukazu Takemura, and I know him from back when he was a hip hop DJ. I’ve met him many times, but one day I realized that it was meaningless for anyone to compare our music to his. You can’t say whether making music alone, or with three people, or with a large group of musicians is better. It’s pointless to categorize it as the same thing. Takemura likes to take unique approaches to his music, so he used different monikers to release his music. I’ve always used the same name even if I was releasing different kinds of music. So I really admire the projects he released under different names. I’ve spent a lot of time in my career as Tadashi Yabe of UFO, so I haven’t released music on my own.
UFO was categorized as “jazz” from an acid jazz/club jazz perspective. What are your thoughts on being categorized as “jazz”?
It’s a little awkward for me, but it was probably the easiest way to categorize us. Jazz has a broad scope for interpretation. But people started abusing the word and calling anything jazz. I don’t know whose fault it was, but when that started happening, I didn’t want to be in the same category as those people. It’s not like I was listening to Coltrane since I was in kindergarten, but my first club was called Yabe’s Rockin’ Jazz Night. I was playing jazz and not rock music. My taste may have seem like it evolved, but essentially it is the same. It all depends on how you say it. If you ask us what kind of jazz we like, we like jazz that is rocking and has funk elements in it, so we don’t come from the purist jazz generation. We started from jazz, and then got into other kinds of music. I think that I underestimated African music for a while. You can hear the roots of electro music in African music. When I was younger and buying records, the sound quality of the records from Africa were so bad that, I didn’t think it was worth paying lots of money for them.
The roots of jazz can be traced back to Africa, but the term jazz was coined in the US.
The more energy you put into something that is unknown, the more of a gift it becomes to the world.
The people that first played jazz in the US, never had a word to describe their music. There were people that escaped from Germany who had recording equipment, and they found these people in the US playing this amazing music. They asked the people what their music was called. They decided to call it jazz and record it. For example if you look at the cities of Asakusa and Paris, it’s not just the people of those two cities that made them famous. The people from all around the world that love Asakusa made it famous, and it goes the same for Paris. There has to be someone on the outside who finds value in something, which leads it to becoming known. When you find something new and interesting, you don’t do it to make money, you do it because it’s uncharted territory. When you create new music that no one’s heard before, you want to record it or share it with other people. You’re creating something that is unknown, so you don’t know the value of it yet. The passion you put into the music is more important than money, and the more energy you put into something that is unknown, the more of a gift it becomes to the world.
UFO has always been categorized as jazz, and you guys ended up performing at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. You guys were probably asked to perform live rather than DJ right?
Yes, there were people that asked us to perform live. But we never went in that direction. Though we performed there many times, we never tried playing there as a band. When the three of us made music, we did have musicians come in to play on our songs, but when I see DJ’s perform live as a band, I don’t think they’ve created something new. I think it lacks energy. It’s because DJ’s aren’t bands, and they’re not musicians. When I was in kindergarten, I remember my older brother listening to a Beatles record and playing guitar along to “Yesterday.” But whenever I find good music, I’m not the kind of person that wants to imitate it. I would want to listen more to those musicians, which is why I enjoy going to concerts. I think I’m not the kind of person that can’t inherently play instruments, but I chose not to.
The drummer Ponta Murakami said a very interesting thing when he held a drum class for children. He told two kids to have a drum session and said, “I’m not going to tell you to listen to the other drummer. Real jazz is when musicians really play what they want, and something good just happens to come out of it.” I feel the same way. I’m really good at being honest with myself and doing what I want. I think I started to understand this concept in my 40’s, so things can take time to unfold in music. Yosuke Yamashita and Otomo Yoshihide played a concert at Capio Hall in Tsukuba, and I played with them as a DJ. I wasn’t the opening act, I actually performed with them. How presumptuous of me right? I got to do improv performances with Yamashita a few times like that, and it was really good.
Was Otomo playing guitar?
Yeah, he was playing guitar. They said that they’re going to play “Lonely Woman” next, and they asked me if I had the record. I had the Ornette Coleman version on me, and I said, “What do you want me to do with the record?” They said, “Just do what you want.” I’ve never felt so lost in my life.
Have you felt that way before when you DJ’d?
I’ve collaborated with other DJs and bands before many times, but it hasn’t been that difficult. When we rehearsed for that show, we only had five minutes, and they told me “use that record.” I had no idea what to do, but the show started off from my sounds. The performance went very well until the next break.
How long was the performance?
It was about two hours total, made up of two 40 minute sets, with a ten minute break in between. The performance was held at a concert hall.
So there was no structure for the performance, and they just told you to use “Lonely Woman”?
Now I’m at a point where being categorized as jazz or not doesn’t matter to me. If people want to say my DJ style is jazz, then so be it.
Yeah. They didn’t tell me whether or not I should play the record. They just told me, “We’re playing ‘Lonely Woman’ next.” Otomo and Yamashita were playing what they wanted to, so I decided to do the same thing. I even played four to the floor rhythms on the turntable. The first half went very well, and I went outside to take a break. While I was smoking, the full moon was out, and I prayed and said, “Thanks for making the show go well. Please help me on the last half of the show.” When we started the second half of the show, I realized how powerful music could be. We were playing in front of one thousand people, and I realized that we had the power to direct the music in any direction. Although I wasn’t doing it alone, I felt confident that I could do this. I was happy to hear that Yamashita and Otomo had fun during that performance too.
So after experiencing sessions like that, can you say that you still love jazz?
Yes, for sure. But there was a time when I hated it. I would think to myself, “What the hell is jazz anyways?” Now I’m at a point where being categorized as jazz or not doesn’t matter to me. If people want to say my DJ style is jazz, then so be it. In the beginning I felt awkward being categorized as jazz. The era of jazz that I love the most, is the kind of jazz that wasn’t well known in Japan. I love the jive stuff that was being played in the ’40s during World War II. It was jazz that you could really dance to. That’s why I brought Slim Gaillard from London to perform in Japan.
Jive incorporated singing, dancing, humor, and included elements from jazz and R&B. The rise of the acid jazz scene in London is probably what led to the rediscovery of Slim Gaillard’s music.
There was an era where black people had to perform in front of all white audiences, and they let off their steam by going home and having parties. They played music that made fun of the police, or they sang about drugs, and they used their own unique slang. I love that era of music. That’s what jazz is all about for me. People that choose to step into dark and uncharted territory, are people who are actually searching for the light. You can only be sensitive to finding the light when you’re in the dark. The reason I got drawn to nightlife, is because we were searching for the light. Jive music had that light to it, although I like deeper forms of jazz too. The only jive music compilation that was released in Japan, was the one compiled by Toyo Nakamura.
The resurgence toward jazz music came from people that were into rock, blues, and acid jazz, rather than people who were playing swing or bebop music right?
The reason why I love music so much, is that there’s always going to be something new to learn about.
Yeah, you can say the same thing about films. Japanese people think that we can see any films we want in Japan, but when you go to Hong Kong, they have all kinds of comedies that you’ve never seen before. Everyone thinks that you can get anything you want in Japan, but there are so many great things out there in the world that we don’t know about. So you should never act like you know everything. That’s the amazing thing about music. No matter how many records you’ve bought before, there’s always going to be a new discovery. There aren’t that many products in the world like that. The reason why I love music so much, is that there’s always going to be something new to learn about. When somebody asked William Burroughs the simple question, “What is art?” He replied by saying, “Art gives you the conviction that what you know to be true is true. At the same time, it also makes you feel that you know nothing, and you haven’t seen anything yet.” I feel the same way.
Translated by Hashim Bharoocha